NIT-bound Huskies play BYU in Provo two days before Gonzaga plays in NCAA’s first round in Salt Lake City. It’s a short drive to at least hang around outside the Big Dance.
The University of Washington doesn’t want to play Gonzaga in basketball. But if the Zags are willing, Huskies fans might accept a ride on Gonzaga’s bandwagon. It’s the only state transportation available to the NCAA tourney.
The Huskies weren’t invited to the Big Dance. But the bandwagon won’t have to go far to pick up UW fans who can bear the indignity.
At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in Provo, UT., sixth-seeded Washington will play BYU in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament, aka the Little Dance. Two days later, Gonzaga will play Southern in the opening round of the NCAA tourney just down the road in Salt Lake City.
Proximity adds to the awkwardness. Never has March Madness illuminated more starkly the disparity between the state’s biggest college programs.
Gonzaga was ranked No. 1 in the polls and given a No. 1 seed Sunday in the tourney for the first time in the school’s basketball history. The Huskies missed the tourney for the second year in a row, and this time there was no disputing the exclusion. Quite the contrary.
“Last year we won our league,” said Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar by teleconferencee Sunday night, referring to the Pac-12 regular-season championship. “There was was a glimmer of hope (to make the NCAA field). This year we knew it, so there’s not as much of a letdown.
“Last year our guys were not ready to play the NIT in terms of our minds. It was tough to overcome.”
This time, in fact, there was apprehension – the Huskies may not have been good enough even for the NIT. Their RPI of 91 after an 18-15 season put them perilously close to the bottom edge of the 32-team NIT field that is chosen after the NCAA’s brackets of 68 are filled.
To not have been in the top 100 teams in college ball would have been a double-grocery bag of shame for Washington, especially in a year when Gonzaga, the little Jesuit school in Spokane, reached the pinnacle. The schools played annually from 1997 to 2006, but Washington pulled out after Gonzaga won eight of the 10 matches.
Gonzaga has been to the NCAA tourney 15 years in a row. Huskies fans hasten to point out that the Bulldogs benefit by dominating a weak league, the West Coast Conference, making the tourney route easier. But that argument had best not be made too loudly this week – BYU finished third in the WCC with a 21-11 record and nearly toppled Gonzaga Feb. 28, falling 70-65 after tying up the game late. The Zags moved from No. 2 in the polls to No. 1 the next week.
The Pac-12, meanwhile, is no one’s idea of a runaway freight train. The league did get five teams into the NCAA tourney, two more than a year ago, but none was seeded higher than sixth. Post-season tourney champion Oregon was a 12th seed, by definition of the seeding process one of the last teams in the field.
Again, it was a down year for the conference and the Huskies. A year ago, Washington salvaged a little something by winning their first three games in the NIT against Texas-Arlington, Northwestern and Oregon. – all at home. That got them a trip to New York and Madison Square Garden, where they lost in the semifinals to Minnesota.
The draw is not nearly as fortunate this time. BYU’s home gym is big and its fan base extraordinarily annoying. In their second year in the WCC, the Cougars were 13-3 at home.
“I know this much – they don’t lose often there,” said Romar, who booked a 7 p.m. practice for Sunday night before flying Monday. “They have 18,000 seats and they fill it. They’re loud and excited.”
Same could not be said this season for Hec Ed this season. No 10,000-seat sellouts; they didn’t even draw 9,000 for a game. As Spokane hoops fans celebrated, Huskies fans issued a cough.
Asked if the program had taken a step backward, Romar was defensive.
“I wouldn’t say backward – I would say it was not very good year,” he said. “There was a time when when we didn’t go to the NCAAs for two years (2007 and 2008) then won 100 games the next four years and made the NCAA tourney three times.
“I see a year of inconsistency.”
Nationally, Washington was not alone among big programs with disappointments. Joining the Huskies in the NIT field are defending national champ Kentucky (21-11), as well as Alabama (20-11), (Iowa 21-12), Maryland (22-11), UMass (21-10) and Tennessee (20-12).
Still, it’s awkward, at least from a perspective of geography. The NCAA field has teams from Oregon (Ducks), Idaho (Boise State) and Montana (Grizzlies) and a Washington team 280 miles from Seattle.
Quality college hoops around these parts were hard to find this year. Maybe next year, Washington can invite over Gonzaga for a look-see — so fans don’t have to drive from Provo to Salt Lake City in someone else’s bandwagon.